Monday, 10 February 2020

Five ways to make our housing problems worse (why Neil O'Brien is dangerously wrong about housing)

Neil O'Brien,MP for Harborough has set out his "five ways to resolve the housing crisis" over at Conservative Home. But before we explain why four of his five ways will have the opposite effect, we need to note the location of Harborough (and a little about its politcs) because this is important:

It's a typical semi-rural and suburban seat south east of Leicester. Oadby and Wigston makes up about half the constituency and is a Liberal Democrat dominated council (24 out of 26 members) on the urban fringe of Leicester. And Harborough District, to complete the picture, has the most expensive housing in the county. And the MP is right there in the mix:
Neil O’Brien, MP for Harborough, Oadby and Wigston, has raised concerns over plans to develop 300 new homes on the corner of Gartree Road and Stoughton Road in Oadby, following a survey of local residents in which 70% voiced their opposition.

The land was earmarked for new homes by the Council in their draft local plan, and a planning application has now been submitted by the Co-op who own the land.
So how does O'Brien plan to fix the problem? Obviously he's starting by whipping up opposition to the development of new homes on land designated as a housing site but he also has a five point plan for all of us (which, it won't surprise you, would mean less development in constituencies like Harborough):

1) Change OAN* and build more in cities

2) Move away from infill to strategic planning

3) Make development pay for the infrastructure it needs

4) Give councils the tools they need to plan

5) Use the tax system to drive up home ownership

*OAN stands for Objective Assessment of Need - what usually gets called "housing numbers"

And O'Brien sets out the detail in an article in Conservative Home. So we'll look at what he says and whether evidence supports his contention that this will help "resolve the housing crisis".

First OAN. O'Brien says this:
"At present, councils have to build enough to meet their “Objectively Assessed Need” (OAN). In practice this means meeting forecast population growth. But the forecast just reflects recent trends.

Instead of saying that the future should reflect past trends, there are strong arguments for preferring more development within cities: it means more walking, less congestion, less pollution and lower energy use."
I'll excuse O'Brien somewhat oversimplifying the OAN methodology (it's not simply forecast population growth) but can't forgive him the mistake of arguing that the answer is to cram more development into cities, largely on the specious grounds that places like Paris and Barcelona are more dense than New York. It's worth noting that this comparison is false since the boundaries of New York as a political entity are much bigger than those of Paris - 302sq miles compared to 41sq miles - a better comparison is with Manhatten which has 27k people per sq km compared to Paris' 21k. And metropolitan Paris is a big sprawling place:
...over the past four decades, everyone's favorite dense core city, Paris, has seen its urban land area expand 55%, while its population has risen only 21%. Today, the geographical extent of urban Paris is more than 25 times that of the ville de Paris.
France has, of course, benefitted from not having strict urban containment policies which has allowed Paris to expand without causing a big rise in rents and house prices. Paris has no 'green belt', a loose planning framework and a development policy design to limit population pressure on the crowded (and expensive) city itself. As a result the urban area (unité urbaine) has a lower population density than New York or London. The result isn't the dense terraces (without parking) that O'Brien and CreateStreets want but recognisable suburbia:

The real story of French housing is that that country hasn't limited development and hasn't had centralised, inspected guesses at housing numbers with the result that housing in France is far more affordable than housing in the UK. France has problems, especially with historic inner suburbs where poor quality housing is sustained by bad landlords, racism and poverty but Paris is simply a bad choice of comparator if you're arguing for urban containment.

And urban containment, even with a comfortingly bucolic titles like 'green belt', is an absolute disaster as housing policy. As long ago as 1973, Peter Hall in 'The Containment of Urban England' was pointing to 'green belt' and other planning restrictions as the main driver of rising land prices:
“perhaps the biggest single factor of the 1947 planning system is that it failed to check the rise in land prices which is probably the largest and most potent element of Britain’s postwar inflation.” They note that the planning system is inconsistent “with the objective of providing cheap owner occupied housing” and that it has imposed its greatest burdens on lower income households.
Despite these findings, urban containment policies continued and, as geographer Wendell Cox from Demographia reports every year, the most unaffordable housing markets are those with the most restrictive urban containment:

It perhaps doesn't come as a surprise to see that Leicester and Leicestershire is now in the list of the world's least affordable housing markets. O'Brien is, in his policy proposals, defending unaffordability by emphasising a renewed focus - a doubling down - on urban containment. Forcing assessments of housing need (OAN) to prioritise urban density would play very well in south Leicester villages with very expensive housing but would do nothing to resolve the housing problems associated with land use restrictions and urban containment.

O'Brien's second argument is that, if we have to build on greenfield sites, this should be done using a thing called "strategic planning" instead of another thing called "infill". Given that (unusually) both Oadby & Wigston and Harborough Councils have adopted local plans, what O'Brien refers too isn't really a matter of good local planning but a reflection of perceived local pressure on "infrastructure" from new housing development. O'Brien hints at this when he says "...infill is the type of development that attracts most opposition. That’s unsurprising: it means building right next to people. And specifically, to people who chose to live on the edge to get a nice view." This isn't about good development or the right choices, it's 'not in my back yard' written as policy.

A while ago I wrote - from 24 years of experience as a councillor - a series of predictabe reasons for objecting to housing developments:

What I don't see, however, is why not having people upset over these things justifies the far more expensive approach of building entire new communities rather than using modest and affordable extensions to existing places. All, we're told funded by s106 payments (a system that will cease to exist once Community Infrastructure Levy rates are adopted - and note that in inner city Leciester where O'Brien wants to cram new housing, the developer contribution to infrastructure is set at zero to encourage regeneration) which will make developers build new schools, health centres, community halls and anything else off the back of housing. Meaning, of course, that the housing will be more expensive.

Most of the villages in O'Brien's constituency would, like the slightly less posh one I live in, largely benefit from a 10-20% increase in housing. Not only would this not really impact on schools provision to the extent of needing new schools (it takes about 500 houses to add a full class of 30 children to a school) but it would help sustain the local pub, post office, chemist and shops. Opposing this because some people might lose a view is everything wrong with how we approach planning and development.

O'Brien's next argument is popular with councils and the planning profession. What is proposed is (although O'Brien doesn't frame it this way) to give councils compulsory purchase powers for housing developments. Essentially O'Brien's cunning plan is to allow councils to buy land at agricultural land values, give themselves planning permission, sell the land to developers and pocket the difference between what they paid and the inflated value. At present, we have a compulsory purchase system in order to ensure that large universal services (highways, rail, water, electricity, etc.) are not impeded by obstructive land owners. O'Brien's proposals completely change the purpose of compulsory purchase - it becomes a de facto (and very extreme) tax rather than a means of securing the land for a necessary project.

What's clear from such an idea is that O'Brien sees forced sale as a means to get 'brownfield' sites developed. What he doesn't tell us is why "derelict land on the site of an old factory" isn't being developed for housing, there's merely a hint that the developer is "sitting" on the land until the council lets it get away without "paying for infrastructure". Bear in mind that, in the parts of Leicester with those surface car parks O'Brien is so keen on, the contribution to infrastructure under CIL will be zero. The reason the land sits undeveloped is that the 'exceptional costs' (land remediation, clearance, decontamination, etc.) mean that the cost of development makes building homes at a reasonable margin - 17-20% is the usual level in viaiblity assessments - infeasible. This is a cost of regulation and planning not a sinister plot by developers to avoid "paying for infrastructure".

O'Brian's final point is an odd one since it seems to suggest that one reason for the drop in home ownership is the rise in private renting. I've a suspicion here that O'Brien has the cart and horse in the wrong order. For sure, cheap finance and a beneficial tax regime made buy-to-let appealling but this was only made possible because there was a big increase in the number of people, especially younger people, who were in the market for rented property. And, where (because of urban containment and other planning constraints) there wasn't enough new supply, the growth in buy-to-let affected the wider market by generating, in effect, new demand. The thing is that, without significantly more new supply, reducing the availability of rented properties only acts to increase rents (and homelessness).

It is good to see us talking about housing and housing policy but completely useless if that policy is predicated on repeating the failed policy of urban containment or giving councils the incentive to pile up cash from compulsory purchase - a recipe for housing crash as connoiseurs of Spanish housing markets will appreciate. We won't get the housing delivery we need without reform to the 'green belt', without accelerating the planning process by granting housing allocations automatic outline permission, and without allowing smaller communities to grow so as to sustain their existing social infrastructue.


Monday, 3 February 2020

Urban densification is bad for the planet

We're told, aren't we, that building more densely in our cities will be great for the environment. Cramming everybody into a smaller space means more bikes, more walking, more public transport and fewer of those terrible, evil cars. With the result that, hey presto, all our carbon footprints are ever so much smaller.

Hang on a minute though...

Hmmm. This graph comes from a study by the Australian Conservation Foundation and, echoing similar studies from Chicago and elsewhere, it shows that transport - all those cars - isn't the bad boy you think it is when it comes to our carbon footprint. High-rise, apartment living itself generates a per capita carbon footprint 50% higher than is the case for suburban living. Even with a higher impact from using the car, suburbs are less environmentally damaging than dense urban environments. And this is without us even trying to reduce its footprint.

All this reminds us that, far from eating beef and driving cars being the biggest culprits in terms of energy use, heating or cooling our homes is the baddie. And not only is our individual footprint bigger (largely as a result of unshared accommodation and the lack of families in dense urban environments) there's also that huge additional cost dubbed "operational" - everything from street lighting and traffic management through to lifts and managing communal areas in apartment blocks. The idea that cramming us all together is good for the planet doesn't stack up.

Despite this (and despite denisification being bad for health, congestion and housing affordability) we are still wedded to the idea of ever more dense cities and to the denigration of suburbs as ugly, planet-killing, car-choked hell holes. Time to change.


Sunday, 2 February 2020

"Your opinion doesn't count because you're thick and you have a common accent": the story of Remain (and Boris Johnson's election)

It is pretty commonplace these days to read or hear an otherwise intelligent person explain how somebody holding an opposing view does so as a result of either being paid to do so or else being brainwashed by the media and advertising. This outlook is doubly common when the otherwise intelligent person considers that the person doing the 'wrongthink' is less well educated. Here's a excellent example from Peter Jukes in a tweet that garnered several hundred likes and retweets:
This is the point. I don’t blame Leave supporters: 30 years of lying by 90% of the press: hundreds millions spent on dark ads by Johnson, Cummings, Banks and Farage, boosted by Putin.
If you voted leave in 2016, you did so because you were brainwashed, lied to and conditioned by the media or by advertising. We see the same argument from public health professionals as they explain that the reason John smokes and Mark is obese is that sinister and manipulative marketing - John and Mary's choices were not real choices, these people (unlike Peter Jukes or the public health people, of course) had no real agency, no free will, they are leaves blown about by the storms of marketing and media.

On the evening of Britain's departure from the EU, somewhat reluctantly, the broadcast media ventured into Parliament Square where several thousand folk were enjoying the moment. There's a little clip that, for those who believe leave voters were hoodwinked, confirms the undoubted thickness and ignorance of leavers. Two women with strong, working class accents are asked by the reporter why they voted to leave. And the answer from both was, albeit not in fancy dan language, right on the money - the vote was about restoring decision-making to the UK parliament where, people felt, they had more chance of affecting those decisions. This, of course, wasn't enough for the reporter who wanted them to say what laws or rules the women would change (hoping, of course, that they'd say something bigoted about immigrants) but they didn't oblige and the reporter moved on.

For our otherwise intelligent person the womens' thick accents and their slightly inarticulate response was enough to confirm that the combination of a "right wing" media, dark money and a number on the side of a bus had led them to vote leave. The women are plainly not intelligent enough to listen to argument, consider the options and make a decision (unlike our otherwise intelligent person).

The idea that the environment in which we live affects the decisions we make isn't either new or wrong. Media and advertising are part of that environment but not the whole of it - if we say that free will is moderated by our social environment, we are not saying that people's decisions are made for them by advertisers or their opinions put in their heads by the media. What our friends and family say, the conversations we have at work or in the check out queue, a thousand interactions that are not controlled by media or advertisers, these things are at least as important - probably more so - than the ads or the news. Why do you buy that particular brand of soap powder? Chances are that it's the brand your Mum uses and the same will go for preferences across a host of products and services.

None of this denies people agency but rather explains how we go about choosing. It's something we don't do in isolation (this also applies to our otherwise intelligent person) but by processing all the information we have received. We place different emphases on these sources, trusting some more than others - I remember a tale told during the recent election where someone reported how their first time voter daughter returned from college saying how the teacher had told them they should vote for Corbyn but, as the tale concluded, that young voter said that she trusted her parent's opinion more than the teacher.

After their defeat in the referendum and, latterly, in December's election, our otherwise intelligent person has expressed the intention to listen to the voters. The problem is that, because those voters are going to say things about being respected, our otherwise intelligent person won't really be listening. After all, the reason they voted the wrong way is because they were manipulated by sinister forces, lied to and exploited by dark forces who don't share their interests. Either than or (and this is more commonly held by our otherwise intelligent person) those voters are just thick and stupid.

So, instead of hearing what those voters are saying ("yes we do want to leave the EU") our otherwise intelligent person listens instead to people like him who have written long analyses of why Labour and/or Remain lost. A two thousand word one in the London Review of Books or a piece by some sociologists at a London university - that'll provide all the evidence our otherwise intelligent person needs, no need to actually listen to what those fat working class women are saying. The BBC did a feature from "the North" by visiting university campuses and talking to people who shared the same outlook, background and worldview as the producers of the programme. It probably didn't help much to broaden anybody's understanding of those people who, in the view of our otherwise intelligent person, voted the wrong way because of dark ads and the right wing media.

The extent to which people who are less articulate (usually, but not always, a consequence of a lower level of formal education) get ignored but our otherwise intelligent person and his friends reveals a degree of intolerance for opinions that are not validated by the in-group. More credence is given to somebody sitting in a book-lined Islington flat who writes about why people in Bassetlaw deserted Labour than an older couple having a drink in a Worksop Wetherspoons. Despite only vaguely knowing the location of Bassetlaw and certainly not knowing anybody who is from Worksop or Retford, our Islington writer gets published in a widely read newspaper or journal while the old couple's opinion, at best, gets (a slightly sneering) fifteen seconds on the local evening news. But then we should remember, as our otherwise intelligent person knows, the writer's opinion is real while the old couple simply reflect the propaganda of that right wing press and those dark ads.

People ask what changed, how the Conservatives and Boris Johnson turned it round and won that victory. What was Dominic Cummings' magic formula? Why? Perhaps, in answering these questions, we should begin with understanding that the biggest change was the decision to ignore the media, to be positive and to offer something believable and tangible to ordinary voters. And because conservatives, and especially leave voting conservatives, had got used to being called thick, xenophobic racists, it was an easy job to make common cause with a load of largely Labour voting leavers who'd experienced the same attacks. If you don't respect people's opinion then you really don't deserve to get people's support.


Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Why would anyone leave London?

On the 27th July 1987 I set off, suitcase in hand, from Kent House Station to arrive some four hours or so later at Bradford Interchange. It feels odd to think that all those years ago I made the decision to leave the place where I'd been born and brought up, the South London suburb of Beckenham, to take a job in Bradford. Lots of people, especially Londoners, have asked me why I did it, why did I leave the 'Greatest City in the World' to live in one of those dreadful, dreary, northern places they'd seen on the telly. Even a few curious Bradford folk have asked!

My usual answer is either: "someone gave me a job" or a longer explanation that, even in 1987, London was expensive. There was little hope of me being able to afford to buy even a tiny place in my home town and I faced the prospect of either spending most of my life on a train in from Essex or North Kent or else buying a pokey flat in Hackney where you'd need three bolts on the door and daren't go out at night. Leaving London was an easy decision and choosing Bradford was simply because, besides the job offer, I actually knew somebody in Bradford.

I'm writing this sitting in the kitchen of our house in Cullingworth where, if I stand out on the terrace, I can look out at the wooded valley where we live, can hear the chatter of birds, the basso profundo moo of cows fattening in nearby fields and the bleat of sheep on the moor. Sometimes in a morning the clip-clop of horses passes by on the bridleway out back, accompanied by girly giggles or gentle conversation. In twenty minutes I can be in the centre of Bradford, it's a little more than half an hour into Leeds and even Manchester can be reached within an hour. If you put your foot down on the north bound A629 you'll be in the Yorkshire Dales National Park in a breath and an hour later, given favourable traffic, Windermere and the Lake District beckons. Why would anyone leave London?

Yet sometimes the idea of leaving a place, especially a place a grand as London, seems an impossibility:
One beneficiary of this idea, though, could be the former 5 Live presenter Victoria Derbyshire, who could be appointed the Today programme's fifth presenter. She comes from Bolton, so the argument goes. Trouble is, her family is unlikely to welcome such a move. Her husband is a fellow West Ham season ticket holder and she has two teenage children. Why would anyone want to uproot their family like this?
This was Iain Dale talking about the daft idea of sending a bit of the Today Programme "Up North" in the form of Nick Robinson. As a piece of tokenism this is classic BBC but Iain's tone troubled me, not because moving to a new job sometimes comes with tricky decisions for families, but because there was a sense of "only in London" about the post. Or maybe it was just Dale using the term "Professional Northerner" in his headline.

Crossing this attitudinal bridge, the view that everything of importance happens in London, is central to the idea of "levelling up" England's regions. And it is perhaps the most difficult part of the project to achieve for the simple reason that people don't see what I see out my window, they see what they'll lose even if the view from their window is just a brick wall. Not just the West Ham season ticket but the connections, the familiar places and bewildering choices. To go where? To Durham, Hull, Stoke or Wrexham, to places you've vaguely heard of but (if the average person's geography is a guide) would struggle to place on a map.

Part of the problem is fifty years of portraying England's north and midlands as dour places filled with slightly unhealthy blokes in work clothes talking funny. Pictured in drama as an endless struggle interspersed with strong tea and large women in flowery aprons: The North, whose leaders arrive in London, twisting their proverbial cap in their gnarled workers hands, to ask the rich folk for more money. And now, when those leaders no longer look like professional northerners, nothing has changed. Week after week little clumps of the North's great and good cram onto the train to head for meetings with ministers and civil servants in the glittering glories on London. "Please Sir, can we have some more?" is the plaintive cry of these folk.

This picturing of places far from London as primitive, barely out of the stone age, is not new. I recall a geography lesson where we discussed perceptions of distance and place. Mr Delaney produced what Dungeons & Dragons DMs would call a "crudely drawn map" showing England from the perspective of a Londoner. A map where The North was a place of rude huts and outside toilets beginning at the end of the Metropolitan Line, and where London contained everything of any importance or significance. This mindset, even from those who began their life somewhere other than London is what must be overcome if we are to level up.

I'm not sure how we do this, how we change attitudes, expectations and opportunities so people don't see ending up in Hull (with a decent job and a cottage in South Cave) as some sort of failure. Some of this is, as Chris Blackhurst suggests at Reaction, about government's choices:
The brain drain has to be reversed, the civil service has to move north, out of London, and not just the back room jobs but all the jobs, leaders included. The private sector, too, has to be incentivised to relocate. Again, it can’t be the rehoming of satellite operations – the North has long and bitter experience of those, of their arrival and their subsequent closing – but the headquarters.
But Iain Dale's article tells us that, if the reaction to one journalist leaving London is "oh my god, what a terrible idea, everyone's in London", what will be the reaction of civil service mandarins with a nice house in Amersham and children at a good day school? I mean, do they even have good day schools in Newcastle? Civil service reorganisation will be doubly difficult if the reorganisation doesn't just mean a new set of names for ministries and moving to a different office in Chiswick or Kensington but means moving to some place you've never heard of in a part of England that's more than an hour from London.

The other day I read a newspaper report about some men who'd gone for a pint somewhere in East London and been charged £6.40 for a pint of ordinary session bitter plus a late night supplement. Here in Cullingworth you won't pay more than £3.30 for a beer like that (and it will have been brewed in the village too). Yesterday I went to the Polish bakers on Manningham Lane in Bradford returning with five loaves of fresh bread plus a challah - all for just over six quid. Compare that to the price of a single sourdough loaf in Borough Market.

London is expensive, crowded, often lonely, crime-ridden and unhealthy. For all the great institutions (the ones you never go to because you're too busy), it's as much a place of homelessness, mental breakdown and filth as it is of those famous bright lights. Londoners spend hours hanging from straps on tube trains, cramming overground trains and holding a pole in a bus. Hours that could be spent sitting in the garden with a cup of tea or walking into the village for a pint. We're told that the business of London is a good thing, "drives the economy" say all the experts, but somehow I've a feeling I was right to leave.

But then, why would anyone leave London?


Saturday, 18 January 2020

Conservatives don't need philosophers, just Sam Gamgee.

At the moment it's perhaps sacrilege to suggest that Roger Scruton's beautifully written bucolic reaction isn't helpful, let alone representative, of conservatism as a political idea. Like so many, Scruton seems to see conservatism as being the preservation of a vaguely defined thing called either 'Christian' or 'Western' civilisation, which perhaps explains his conflicted views of Islam and Judaism. Yet Scruton's death, and the quite proper reflection on his contribution to conservative thinking, has raised the issue of why (we're told) there are too few conservative thinkers. Here's Ben Sixsmith:
The Left has its intellectuals. We like to characterise leftists as emotional if not hysterical — and that is by no means always an injustice — but they also have a deep, if narrow, emphasis on learning that the Right does not share. Read the London Review of Books and you will find a depth of literary and historical erudition that cannot be found in Right-wing publications.
We perhaps need to start with recognising that Sixsmith seems captivated by the sort of public intellectual that those on the left have always enjoyed - I too read the London Review of Books and, far from finding an "emphasis on learning", I see instead that narrowness Sixsmith alludes to, a wonderfully written epistle to London's elite, left-wing intellectual aristocracy that acts merely to reinforce their exclusiveness and disdain for ideas outside that narrow world. If this is "thinking", let alone philosophy, then you are welcome to it.

Should we, as conservatives (we should claim this title again and reject "The Right" as a purely reactionary descriptor) be concerned about the lack of philosophy? Should we be concerned also at the lack of conservative economists or sociologists too? We know that academia is an uncomfortable place for conservatives, you need only watch the manner in which Jordan Peterson was dumped by Cambridge University at the first hint of criticism, or their defenestration of Noah Carl on the basis of a petition. That one of the two or three greatest universities in the world cannot countenance having academics who challenge the sacred orthodoxy should be a bigger scandal but it goes a long way to explain how it is near impossible for conservative voices to be heard in academic social sciences or philosophy.

But does this matter? Or is ivory tower thinking simply, as most instinctive conservatives feel, a waste of time? What is clear, however, is that thinking (in one way or another) about conservatism and the application of its ideas to policy, is very alive when you step away from universities and arrive in the world of the think tank. It is probably right to say that we've never been in a position where the influence of think tanks - right, left, liberal, socialist, conservative - has never been greater. And, while these organisations more often focus on the practical, there is a sense that conservative thought is perhaps surviving the attempt of the academic left to kill it off.

Conservatives have always had a welcome scepticism towards intellectuals, one born in the knowledge that so often those intellectuals are wrong and fertilised by that central principle, doubt. The Conservative Party is the only one to have been led by a philosopher and theologian who wrote an actual treatise on why we should be sceptical. And the problem with intellectuals is that, too often, scepticism is a foreign country - in that treatise, Balfour even noticed our reluctance to apply the same rules to our own beliefs as we apply to those other others: that our position is this- from certain ultimate beliefs we infer than an order of things exist by which all belief, and therefore all ultimate beliefs, are produced, but according to which any particular ultimate belief must be doubtful. Now this is a position which is self-destructive. The difficulty only arises, it may be observed, when we are considering our own beliefs. If I am considering the beliefs of some other person, there is no reason why I should regard them as anything but the result of his time and circumstances.
This scepticism makes the case for being conservative because it reminds us we should proceed with caution. To return to Scruton, his instinct to conserve came (he tells us) from seeing the riot and destruction of Paris in 1968. But this is not a rationalised philosophic position but rather an emotional response, the same response that gives us good and bad from that desire to preserve - the NIMBY on one hand, and the community archive on the other. We save old buildings, treasure ancient books and preserve cobbled streets out of an attachment to the thread of human history. This is not about the great and good of times past but the forgotten men and women who created those things:
Not the great nor well-bespoke,
But the mere uncounted folk
Of whose life and death is none
Report or lamentation.
Although the erudition of the philosopher embraces things felt, I fear that Sixsmith in his search for ideological certainty, looks for a definitive conservative text or texts, where none exists. We can describe what conservatives feel about things, explain the importance of tradition, of family and of community, but there is no philosophical rule book here nor should there be one. I can take my well worn copy of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, turn to the 'Scouring of the Shire', that part so tragically left out of the film, and tell you this is the most profoundly conservative piece of writing. If you want to understand, don't bash your way through dry tomes, just ask why it was that Sam Gamgee took his gift from Galadriel and went to every corner of The Shire to share its benefits. Ask why Sam got married, raised a family, became just a well-regarded but ordinary hobbit rather than some great and dominant ruler. Ask why unchanging is so important in a changing world.

It would be lovely to have more conservative thought in universities. But, in the end, it doesn't matter because much philosophising takes the form of that London Review of Books, a reverential self-regard not a search for truth. Sixsmith is right that conservatives should acquaint themselves with our intellectual heritage but this is a vast treasure trove not restricted to philosophy - the poetry of Kipling and Houseman, the writing of Tolkien, Trollope and a hundred others stretching right back into the mists of time, back to Chaucer and Langland and before them to the tales of our ancestors like Beowulf.

So long as we keep these things, and bring our own understanding to them, there is no prospect of conservatism or conservative thought petering out. The human instinct to caution, to preservation and to the traditional of story, of remembering, is the most important source for conservative ideas not great brains wrestling great ideas. The latter, I fear, lead us more towards authoritarianism, to Saruman rather than to that shared, fair, equitable and good society that Sam Gamgee restored with the earth from Loth Lorien.


Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Manchester's review makes the case for a national public enquiry into street grooming

It's some time in the early 2000s and, as the controlling group's executive on Bradford Council, we're briefed about 'grooming' in Keighley. It's a matter-of-fact presentation albeit one informed by the political issues associated with the BNP and the concerns raised publicly by Anne Cryer, then Labour MP for the town. And, since you are going to ask, that's it. We were told it was with the police, that social services were engaged and that it was a bad but isolated incident. I don't recall any other discussion or presentation on the subject in the remainder of my time as a member of the Council Executive (I left in 2006).

I present this observation - it's a recollection rather than a set of facts - because it seems to me that we failed some very vulnerable young people back then. And I say 'we' here to refer to us as councillors because every year, sometimes more than once, we make a big thing of us being 'corporate parents' to hundreds of young people in the Council's care. So when one of those young people is raped, exploited and abused we should be (and mostly aren't) taking some responsibility.

Today the review commissioned by Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham has reported on the scandal of how Greater Manchester Police allowed hundreds of abusers to carry on raping and exploiting young people in the city. The report describes how GMP made choices about resources and priorities, the downgrading of serious accusations and the ending of the investigation that, without question, resulted in subsequent abuse, exploitation and rape of children:
After her (Victoria Agoglia) death a police investigation, Operation Augusta, was set up to see if there was a wider problem of child sexual exploitation in south Manchester. Officers managed to quickly identify a network of nearly 100 Asian men potentially involved in the abuse of scores of girls via takeaways in and around Rusholme, but the operation was shut down shortly afterwards due to resources, ‘rather than a sound understanding’ of whether lines of inquiry had been exhausted.

Barely any charges were made against the men identified by the operation. Eight of them later went on to commit serious sexual crimes, including the rape of a child, the rape of a young woman, sexual assault and sexual activity with a child.
At the same time as we were being told that a similar case in Keighley was under control and an isolated incident, GMP along with Manchester social services were, in effect, doing the same. And we know now that there were other cases in dozens of other towns and cities including Rochdale, Rotherham, Birmingham, Dewsbury and Bradford. Far from being isolated incidents, we had a pattern of abusive and exploitative behaviour directed to vulnerable teenage girls right across the country.

Since this became clear, we have seen individual reports from each of these places, some more telling than others but all showing the same detachment as public authorities repeatedly ignored representation, dismissed exploited girls as 'making their own choices' or 'sexually aware', and hinted as other sensitivities contributing to the lack of action to protect the abused or deal with the abusers. Beyond these public reports there is a lot more information, detailed and granular evidence, hidden away in Serious Case Reviews and Court Files. Public authorities have used every trick in the book to avoid their failings being revealed - that the victims were mostly children means that these authorities feel able to hide behind the laws intended to protect young people, extending them to protect social workers, police officers and the CPS lawyers from proper scrutiny. Too many people responsible for failing to protect young girls from exploitation, abuse and rape have avoided being held to account.

There have now been dozens of similar cases across the UK and it is time to ask how it is that, despite the attention supposedly given to correcting past failures, the cases still keep coming forward, each one showing public authorities being slow to respond and hesitant in taking action. Every case involves failures by social services to protect children in their care and most involve the police giving a disturbingly low priority to the abuse. We're told by councils and police that all the past problems are resolved (this, in my experience, is definitely the argument in Bradford) but we get no actual evidence to substantiate this assertion. Meanwhile, anecdotally, the problem on the streets persists with girls (often as young as eleven) targeted by young, mostly Pakistani heritage, men.

It is time to think seriously about how we are responding to this problem and the words coming from police and councils, while sympathetic and carefully crafted, seem complacent and intended to give the impression that all is right when evidently it is not. There is a very strong case for a properly constituted - as Ed Miliband would doubtless say, judge-led - enquiry into the failures of public authorities to protect vulnerable girls from abuse. If government can find time and money to do enquiries into the gender pay gap (and to pass legislation too), I'm absolutely sure they can find the time and money to look into the far more serious issue of the industrial exploitation, rape and abuse of girls, many in the care of the state.

Such an enquiry can, as well as considering actions to take in response to public sector failures, look at why girls in public care are given so much license and at how young men - and some not so young - feel able to treat those girls as the trashiest sort of disposable chattel. There are some who say that we can't do this because the Pakistani community would feel put upon in some way but, from conservations I've had over recent years, I'm absolutely sure that this is not the case and that many from that community (and the wider Muslim community), especially those trying to provide a voice for women, would welcome a robust and honest examination looking at a problem they know persists with a minority of Pakistani heritage men.

In failing to respond openly to the problem - as we know from Rotherham, partly from fear of being accused of racism - public authorities give oxygen to those who are racist and anti-Muslim. The complacency of council leaderships, police and crime commissioners and those leading social services risks building up to a further problem as exploitative grooming continues on the streets of many towns and cities. A public enquiry would provide some restitution for victims, would put the problem in a national context instead of as a series of local challenges, and would provide the basis for government to consider whether changes to law, regulation or resourcing are needed to provide better protection for girls and a tougher response to those men who want to exploit, abuse and rape those girls.


Tuesday, 7 January 2020

The Conservative Party is not neoliberal (and this is a good thing)

 There's a common view among ultra-liberals and those folk who, in an act of ironic etymological colonialism, call themselves 'neoliberals' that economic utilitarianism is the only creed worth following. Everything is subservient to maximising the utility we (as a collective) obtain from the use of resources while at the same time an absolutist adherence to individual licence becomes the sole justification for social policy. What's worse is some of these people believe - god alone knows why - that a political party calling itself conservative should sign up to this essentially extremist agenda.

This isn't to say that individual choice, open markets and free trade aren't good things - ideas and institutions that any good conservative would want to sustain. Rather it's to observe that not everything about people's lives is determined by economics, for all that economists want us to believe so. When people hesitate and ask, "is that right?", "have we thought through what that might mean?" or, more simply, "I don't like that idea?" they represent the essence - the doubting essence - of conservatism. For all that we recognise how the enlightenment's ideas led to betterment, we also see how ultra-liberalism is pulling down institutions - family, democracy, community - that we value and support.

Ultra-liberalism doesn't have real answers to the fragmentation - atomisation is the trendy word - of society, the growth in family dysfunction, and the loss of trust and faith among the general population. All it offers is either an almost feudal idea that what's good for the rich and powerful must, by definition, be good for the poor and powerless. Those of a left-wing persuasion then point to how free markets (they say) create this dysfunction and that our response must be to stop all that freedom, at least so far as economic choice is concerned (I appreciate that these left-inclined people don't quite put it that way).

What we've seen however is that, as the left's preference for identity politics (and the creation of new social sins derived from that politics) spreads, ultra-liberals - wedded as they are to an absolutist viewpoint on personal licence - make common cause with the left in promoting policies crafted from this 'intersectionality' because licentious selfishness appeals to their world view. And, living in a mostly urban, economically advantaged world, such selfishness accords well with their liberalism. What they don't see - because they seldom look beyond their world - is the damage these attacks on collective and communal elements of society do to less entitled or successful people and places.

Since the left has largely given up on family and community as the basis for society - preferring the bizarre world of intersectional top trumps - we are left with a Conservative Party that, after decades of pretending it was liberal (even neoliberal), has emerged blinking into the sunlight of its original purpose. And, while keeping with the idea of free exchange, free speech and good business, conservatives need to start struggling with the challenges that liberals simply don't have answers to:
Both white working-class and black inner-city neighbourhoods lack the civic institutions that allow for upward mobility.

...had the poor followed the success sequence, the U.S. poverty rate would have fallen by more than 70 percent.

“Youths who grow up with both biological parents earn more income, work more hours each week, and are more likely to be married themselves as adults, compared to children raised in single-parent families.”

...not only does controlling for family make-up pretty much eliminate differences between races but that the single best thing to reduce social pathologies like depression, alcoholism, suicide, IV drug use, and domestic violence is to cut the rates of child abuse. And child abuse is dramatically higher where children are born outside marriage.
And, yes, part of the response to these questions is to understand the importance of employment and the employer in helping to provide the social capital that is needed. This might mean keeping a steel works or a car factory going for a while longer through subsidy if the alternative is tearing down the institution that helps sustain the local community. To rule such choices out as "mercantilism" is the act of rich and successful liberals rubbing the noses of ignorant provincials in the dirt of their supposed failure.

The same goes for policies that undermine the idea of marriage such as no fault divorce, civil partnership, ending tax or benefit privileges - these all seem fine to the wealthy liberal because it doesn't really seem to affect things much (they do but the other advantages of wealth and power cover this up). The pointlessness of the liberal attack on marriage is captured by the bit at the end of 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' - up to then a joyous appreciation of these rights of passage - where the Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell characters agree not to get married for reasons that aren't abundantly clear in the movie.

Public authorities talk a lot about community but, more often than not, they mean a particular view of community as a target for support or else a definition based on that familiar game of equalities top trumps - the gay community, the black community, the Muslim community as so forth. The reality of community, at least if one mixes it with the idea of neighbourhood, is that it isn't about these differences or even the fragments of society thrown up by intersectionality when we apply it to localities. Community is, quite literally, about shared experience, the things we do together.

Here in Cullingworth we're one of those pale, stale, white places the liberals sneer at but, scratch the surface a bit and that isn't quite so true - as I wrote nearly ten years ago, the village is filled with people who're, some more obviously than others, not from round here. It works, people get along, jokes are made, experiences are shared and stuff gets done - from grander schemes like building a new village hall down to the mundane everyday stuff like getting a decent set of Christmas lights (and putting them up in the teeth of council bureaucracy) or organising the annual gala.

When JRF came to the neighbouring village of Denholme to look at loneliness, one of their findings was damning of the manner in which public authorities behave - people believed that they needed permission to care and, in the words of the lead researcher, 'regulation kills kindness'. As I wrote back then:
That we might not be allowed to pop in on Mr & Mrs Jones to make sure they're OK, maybe make them a cuppa and have a chat for half and hour. Unless we've undertaken the official "befriending" course, got the required clearances from the state and been attached to an organisation that "delivers" looking out for the neighbours.
This isn't about not wanting rules but rather than those pubic authorities have decided that people - and the communities in which they live - cannot be trusted. Even worse, these same authorities further believe that those communities (and I guess the people who live in them) need development. Either because they are poor or else because there's some intangible social something missing. Government is not interested in community except as a vehicle for implementing the strictures that liberal technocracy has decided are good for them.

In the end neoliberalism - ultra-liberalism, liberaltarianism as Tyler Cowan recently dubbed it - ends up devouring its own illogicality. It wants free speech (bot not THAT free speech), is wants choice (but not THAT choice) and it wants family, community and the institutions providing that community's essential social capital to operate according to a set of rules that really don't suit society. And, as Cowan sort of accepts in that recent article on "State Capacity Libertarianism" it doesn't really work.